Director Simon Wells talks Mars Needs Moms, working with the motion-capture format, bringing this cast together and much more.
Director Simon Wells has always been right at home at the drawing board, literally speaking. After starting out as an animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he transitioned into directing with An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Balto, The Prince of Egypt, and the live-action adventure The Time Machine. After working as a storyboard artist for Disney for several years, Simon Wells made his directing return with the animated tale Mars Needs Moms, which hits the shelves on Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray and DVD on August 9. I recentlly had the chance to speak with Simon Wells over the phone about this animated tale, and here's what he had to say.
It must be nice to delve into a screenplay adaptation like this, since the original book is just 40 pages long. You have the core, but there is a lot of room to create your own world here. Is that part of the appeal of this project for you?
Simon Wells: Yes. There are a couple of moments in the book which are the real tentpoles of the story, and we knew we had to keep those. Actually, there was a very funny article that (author) Berkeley (Breathed) wrote in the L.A. Times. He wrote most of the article before he actually saw the final cut of the movie, and he wrote the last paragraph after he had seen the final cut. He was praying that this single moment at the end of the book was in the movie, and that it felt the way the book felt. He actually had a number of publishers turn him down because of this moment in the book. He said, 'No, this is the whole point of the book,' and we made that the whole point of the film too.
Working with (producer) Robert Zemeckis, the 3D element was part of the plan early on. Did that effect your writing process, knowing it was going to be a motion-capture, 3D adventure?
Simon Wells: Yeah, actually, somewhat. I had been involved in some early 3D work on the DreamWorks movies, so I was around it. I had studied, a bit, what was going on with 3D, and what the advantages and disadvantages are. There were certain composition things, tools that you have in regular movie making which don't work in 3D, most notably, things like drop focus. On the other hand, you get a tremendous sense of space and environment and depth. I'm not so keen about the things flying out of the screen at you. That's a gimmick, but the sense of deep space and being in an environment, not just looking at an environment through a window. That was very intriguing. So, yes, I think when we were writing, we said we were going to go to a number of environments and experience those environments. There a number of places that we had these gut-wrenching drops that work tremendously well in 3D. From the writing standpoint, we were aware and we were thinking about what would work best in that medium, from the get-go. In terms of motion-capture, we set out to spend a lot of time of Mars, because what's the point of doing a motion-capture movie if you're just going to be walking around a garden in a neighborhood on Earth? You can do that with a video camera. So, we wanted to go to Mars and I, in particular, wanted Martians that, while you could still relate to them, they were human enough that you could emotionally connect with them, they definitely could not be people in suits. It couldn't be somebody dressed up in prosthetics, it had to be something done in a different way. I was fascinated by the fact that motion-capture can produce very realistic movements with a character that is proportioned very differently from a human being.
With the motion-capture, did you have most of the cast there together on a stage?
Simon Wells: Oh yes, we had everybody there at the same time, and that was the joy of it. The trouble you have with animation is you do a voice, and then do another voice, then try to piece it together and generate that spontaneity between the actors, like they actually are there in the room together. That's actually one of the hardest things about animation, trying to recreate the spontaneity that's just there when actors are working together. Our motion-capture system, I think the maximum it could capture was 14 people on stage at the same time. We could do crowd scenes. The motion-capture supervisor Gary Roberts would have a cow when we did them (Laughs). We had these big crowd scenes where the tribe guys are all clustered around our main characters. At least three of the motion-capture cameras have to be able to see each marker, to know where that is. Man, they did some great work in following up on that stuff, because it came out flawlessly.
Did you find that the cast had an easier time getting into their characters with this process, in having everyone else around them?
Simon Wells: Oh yeah. It's interesting. The actors, when they first put on all the gear, feel very awkward indeed. You have all these prongs with cameras on your face and this sort of wet suit that they're trying to act in. That all goes away remarkably quickly. The other thing is this empty stage with a minimal amount of props, that's like workshop theater for actors. They're very used to that, having to act out the entire environment. We were talking to Colin Firth when he was shooting Disney's a Christmas Carol, and he said that in regular live-action movie, you have a costume and a set and all that, but it's all behind you. You're looking at the lights and the camera and the crew. You're always having to do this level of imagination. Every single actor who worked on the movie said they would love to do another motion-capture movie, because you get to do whole scenes in one go. You get yourself up to speed and you get the energy and emotion going and you feed off the other actor. It all comes out and you can do it all then and there, in one sweep. Sometimes we did four-pages scenes in one go, whereas live-action, you do a couple of lines, and stop to reset the camera. You go back to your trailer and come back a half hour later and go, 'Now where was I? How was I feeling?' A four-page scene might take two days to shoot. The actors loved that aspect of it and, plus, it's really fast. We shot the entire movie in five weeks, which is half the time it would take to shoot a regular live-action movie, let alone a big visual effects movie.
Can you talk about assembling this cast, and did you have any of these actors in mind when you were writing the script?
Simon Wells: Yeah, actually. Very early on in the writing process, we actually ran into Seth Green. He actually came to the set of Disney's a Christmas Carol to pitch a story idea to Robert Zemeckis' development guy. We got chatting with Seth, and we had always admired him as an actor, and we realized that he embodied a lot of what we were trying to write into Milo. Right then and there we said, 'Do you have any interest in playing a 10-year-old kid?' He just jumped at it. He's pretty limited at what he can be cast to be. The chance to play something that's very different from his physicality and his look was terrific. Actually, with Dan Fogler, we didn't know about Dan Fogler at all. It was actually Victoria Burrows and Scott Boland, our casting directors, said, 'We read the script and the guy who you should absolutely have is Dan Fogler.' We then checked out a number of movies he had been in and thought, 'My God, this guy is amazing and he's hilarious.' He was the perfect Gribble and we didn't even know he existed. Joan Cusack was just the perfect mom, and she was lovely to work with, and I don't think we ever thought about anyone else besides Mindy Sterling for the Supervisor. She's the woman. She is it. We held an open casting call for Ki, because we had no idea, and Disney said they didn't need a big name star for this, just someone who was the right character for this role. Elisabeth Harnois came in on a casting call and blew us away. She naturally spoke Martian. Our direction to her was, 'English is your second language, so you're struggling to say things in English and when you're flustered, you say things in Martian.' She was the only actress we met who could do that and it just felt completely natural.
You have a background as an animator and storyboard artist. I was wondering how that background lends itself to a career in directing?
Simon Wells: I actually started off as an animator. The first couple of years of my career I was working for Richard Williams doing commercials, so I would do client meetings and storyboard stuff and animation layout. With commercials, you just do everything. Moving into storyboarding on feature films just kind of made sense after that, since I realized I didn't have the patience needed to become an animator (Laughs). I didn't try hard enough and I just wanted to get my stuff done. Directing seems like a natural way to go, and part of directing is storyboarding. I find it easier to communicate, sometimes, by drawing pictures instead of talking about it. I'll sketch a quick little sketch to show how a composition should be. For instance, when I was shooting The Time Machine, that's the way I would communicate with (director of photography) Donald McAlpine all the time. I would draw a little sketch of what I thought the shot was, and it was tremendously productive and quick. I continue to storyboard between directing gigs, because it's kind of like doing exercises. If you are a runner or a boxer or any kind of sports person, you would do exercises to keep yourself in shape. It's kind of like calisthenics for visual people.
Is there anything that you're currently working on, that you're either writing or looking to direct, that you can talk about?
Simon Wells: Not really, no. There's always that superstition about talking about things that aren't set up. (Co-writer) Wendy (Wells) and I have a new script that we have out there and, to pay the rent, I'm helping out at DreamWorks Animation. They've always been so kind, Bill Damaschke and Jeffrey Katzenberg, they've always kept an office open for me. I go off and do these other movies and come back like a prodigal son. I help out with storyboarding and bits of writing on various projects. I'm actually speaking from my office at DreamWorks which is still here after all these years.
Simon Wells: It's much more of a movie than I think people thought it was. The sad thing is, it didn't perform terribly well in cinemas, but that was from the get-go, people just didn't buy tickets. There was just something about the way it was presented in the marketplace that didn't give people the sense of adventure and fun and real emotion that is in the movie. This is a thing that you'll want to watch with your kids and you'll want to watch over and over again. You won't watch it once and go, 'Gee, I wish I hadn't bought that.' Plus, the DVD has a lot of really cool extras, including how we shot the movie, so it's worth it from an animation fan point of view too. For families, I think it has a lot more in there for them than they knew at the time it was coming out.
Great. That's about all I have for you, Simon. Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with anything you have coming up.
Simon Wells: OK. Thank you very much.